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Freestyle looks to the future

Retirements take toll, but young athletes stepping up; halfpipe on the horizon

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The Canadian Freestyle Ski Association wrapped up the 2009-2010 season with two Olympic medals in moguls, near misses in moguls and aerials, and their fifth consecutive overall Nations Cup title.

This year will be a little different for the team, with several high profile athletes retiring at the end of last season - including regular medalists Steve Omischl, Kyle Nissen, Vincent Marquis and Maxime Gingras.

According to CFSA CEO Peter Judge, it's typical to see turnover of athletes following an Olympic Games as athletes defer retirement to go for medals. He's not worried about the team retaining the Nation's Cup title.

"That's one of the things that takes care of itself, our job is to focus on the task of producing a good, consistent program and depth in each of the disciplines, so we'll have that strength at the end of the day," Judge said.

"To focus on (the Nation's Cup) is a bit of a numbers game. But certainly we'll call this a rebuilding year, and certainly a revitalizing year, as athletes renew their commitment and get their heads back into the whole chase again."

Judge says the retirements were not a surprise, given that some of the athletes have competed in two or three Olympic Games.

"We're dealing with a group that has been around for a long time, and they knew they were reaching the end," said Judge.

On the men's aerials side, the loss of Omischl and Nissen will be significant, but Judge says the team is still in a good position with Ryan Blais and Warren Shouldice in the mix for this year and Shouldice committing to the team through 2014.

"(Shouldice) is coming off a bronze in the last world's, which speaks volumes for his potential moving forward, and there are a lot of good guys underneath as a result of the development programs we've instituted," said Judge.

"It's always tough when you lose key people like Kyle Nissen or Steve Omischl, but Steve's come back already and is starting to contribute at another level."

That other level was coaching a summer trampoline and water ramp program in Whistler, mostly comprised of local boys. Judge says that program is on a temporary hiatus through the winter but he would like to see Whistler develop a grass roots program similar to Quebec's using facilities like the water ramps and legacies from the Games such as the Oros Whistler Gymnastics Centre, the High Performance Centre, the athletes' housing - even the ski jumps, where Judge says they might host an aerials training camp over the winter.

The women's aerials side is less developed, said Judge, although Veronika Bauer is returning for her 12th season. In the past year the team has lost Veronica Brenner and Deidre Dionne.

"Obviously, that's going to be a longer rebuild," said Judge. "Obviously we've got a formidable opponent in the Chinese, which is set up with a significant depth in their pool of athletes. It's going to take some time to work our way through to that group... it takes longer to catch up than it has in the past."

Judge says Canada has some strong prospects at the development level, but it's always a challenge to move forward with injuries.

The men's moguls squad will continue to be strong, even with the loss of Vincent Marquis and Maxime Gingras. Olympic champion Alex Bilodeau will continue to anchor the team, joined by veteran Pierre-Alexandre Rousseau. The retirements create more opportunities for members of the development team, which includes Mikael Kingsbury, Vincent's brother Philippe Marquis and Cedric Rochon. Eddie Hicks, who grew up skiing at Whistler, is also waiting in the wings.

The women's team will be more or less the same, with Jennifer Heil in for the season and Pemberton's Kristi Richards committing through 2014.  Chloe Dufour-Lapointe was fifth in the Olympics and with her sister, Maxime, will be on the World Cup circuit this year.

There is no shortage of talent waiting in the wings, including Audrey Robichaud, Justine Dufour-Lapointe (the youngest sister), Beatrice Bilodeau (Alex's younger sister) and Whistler's Chelsea Henitiuk, among others.

Financially, the team is in a strong position with commitments from major sponsors like Canada Post, Bell and RBC Royal Bank through 2012, and the return of the Own The Podium program.

"(Own the Podium) was a huge, systemic relief for all winter sports. It could have been a profoundly devastating situation if we didn't get that," said Judge. "Some sports are feeling it regardless, because there's this issue of sponsor fatigue after the Games - a lot of sponsors were ecstatic with what went on but they needed to regroup after the Games and establish what their priorities are. And we're still dealing with a difficult economy, where one of the first things to go is advertising and marketing budgets.

"We're fortunate enough to have some great events and great partners, and a good stable of properties that continue to support our needs. But after 2012 we'll have renewals coming up that we have to keep any eye on to ensure our long-term health and viability."

Judge also gave credit to the Quebec model for athlete development, which is leading the country in winter sports. In fact, Quebec athletes account for 24 of the 37 athletes on the roster, including development teams.

"The sport culture in Quebec is very strong, it's a significant part of the fabric of their culture and they really celebrate their sport heroes," he said. "The result is that there is a much stronger aspiration for younger kids to want to grow and develop and be involved in sports, although (after the Games) we're starting to see the rest of Canada catching up."

Government also helps with funding sports organizations and events, says Judge.

"They've been very clever constructing a system that encourages athlete growth, that encourages coaches to stay involved, with rewards for coaches that produce high level athletes, and tax breaks and funding for provincial level athletes that is just not matched in any other province," said Judge.

The effort to build grass roots for the sport got a boost recently with the announcement of the Canada Post Mogul Cup series for the 2010-2011 season - six moguls and three dual moguls competitions held in Quebec, Ontario and B.C. over the course of the season. The events will be open to all athletes, from the club level and up.

As well, the CFSA is making room in its organization for the sport of ski halfpipe, which the International Olympic Committee is currently considering for inclusion in the 2014 Winter Games. The IOC was expected to reach a decision this week, but decided to defer the issue until after the World Championships in 2011.

Judge says Canada will start off strong in that sport, and should be a contender in 2014.

"We do have a plan in place. We've been dialoguing with Own the Podium and keeping them abreast of the situation and what our plans are," said Judge.

While the delay makes things more difficult planning for the future, he doesn't expect it to have any impact on preparing halfpipe skiers for 2014.

"Fortunately, we already have a group of extremely committed athletes and partners on the halfpipe side, who have walked the long road without any funding to date and have been able to have an incredibly significant amount of success," he said. "When we get the nod we'll hit the ground with a team... and I think we'll have great success off the bat and through 2014, and beyond."

Judge is himself a part-time Whistler resident, and says the resort is the unofficial summer training headquarters for the team with a late season, glacier camps, water ramps and other training facilities. The team will host another camp in Whistler before the start of the World Cup season, if conditions permit, as well as a possible aerials camp using the ski jumps at Whistler Olympic Park.

"There are so many more options to do things because of the facilities there, the legacies, the housing, the gymnastics facility, and all those things, and it's really great to be able to have access," he said.